Song of the Week – Meeting of the Spirits, Mahavishnu Orchestra

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Today’s SotW was written by guest contributor John Spallone. John and I first met through a mutual friend in the late 70s when he was in Optometry school in Boston. We instantly bonded over our shared interest in great music. We attended many memorable concert performances together (both national and local acts) and couldn’t begin to count the hours spent listening to records. Exposure to new music was a constant part of our lives back then (and still is to some extent). John has been living and practicing Optometry in San Francisco for some 35 years.

The opening track of a number of debut albums have announced, “Fasten your seat belt. You are about to experience something completely like you never have before.” “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” are two prominent examples from the 1960s. The SotW for this week was another of those signal moments in the popular music of the late 20th Century.

In 1971, John McLaughlin, a jazz guitarist who had moved from England to New York, decided to form a band. He had cut his teeth on the jazz scene of London in the early 60s, playing with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker in the Graham Bond Organisation. After coming to New York, he teamed up with Tony Williams (drums) and Larry Young (organ) to play innovative music that combined the power of rock with the intricacy of jazz. The Tony Williams Lifetime briefly incorporated Jack Bruce (post-Cream) into the group, before breaking up. McLaughlin then recorded with Miles Davis, in sessions that would yield Bitches’ Brew, A Tribute to Jack Johnson and material that would appear on Miles’ albums for years to come. Miles encouraged him to strike out on his own. McLaughlin recruited: drummer Billy Cobham (who had also recorded with Miles), from Panama; bassist Rick Laird, from Ireland; pianist Jan Hammer, from the Czechoslovakia; and violinist Jerry Goodman, from Chicago (and The Flock, another of the jazz-influenced rock bands the emerged from the Windy City). They created a mix of Indian raga, English folk music, European classical music, funk, psychedelic rock, and high-energy jazz. They initially appeared as an opening act for a number of well-known rock bands. McLaughlin’s white suit and peaceful greetings at the introduction would at first draw hoots and jeers from audiences that were primed to “boogie, man!” Then, the band would launch into a wildly pyrotechnic set, played at a sound level that could become unbelievably loud. The music was sometimes pastoral, however, sometimes shimmering (especially when McLaughlin would play on the twelve string neck of his custom double-neck guitar), and the interplay among the band members was remarkable. At the peak moments, the five musicians would be playing complex, high tempo figures that fit together amazingly well. By the end of the concert, the audience was left limp and cheering for more.

Soon, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was a headline act, and the pressures of touring and big money rapidly took its toll. The first incarnation of the MO disbanded in late 1973. McLaughlin took the Orchestra through a few other iterations before changing directions completely with Shakti. Although jazz-rock fusion music soon took on a reputation for rapid riffing without any real soul, in its early days (i.e. before journalists starting calling it “fusion”), there were moments of the excitement of hearing something that had not been done earlier.

This week’s SOTW, “Meeting of the Spirits”, is the opening track on the first MO album, The Inner Mounting Flame.

The piece opens with power chords by McLaughlin, Hammer and Laird, soon joined by Goodman, with Billy Cobham’s frenetic drum fills between the chords. There is a moment of McLaughlin’s shimmering guitar before the band takes the tune into warp drive. Over forty years later, it can be difficult to remember that there was a time that music such as this could not have even been imagined, much less created.

For those interested in checking out video footage of the band in its early days, the link below takes you to a recording made in April of 1972.

Although the picture quality is not great (washed out black and white), the audio quality is fairly good for a live recording made at that time. Also interesting to see is the interaction among the band members, before the tensions of touring had set in.

Enjoy… until next week.

4 thoughts on “Song of the Week – Meeting of the Spirits, Mahavishnu Orchestra

  1. I was 16 in May, 1973. My very first concert: the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the Palace theater, Waterbury, Ct. What an imprint moment! I recall that the energy level of the band was such that we were all pressed against the backs of our seats. Saw them again in New Haven, in October, and in Hartford, in December.
    No other five piece band could rival their claim to be an orchestra. What an absolutely huge sound they delivered.
    Forty years later, and the music still has that crackle of originality and invention. Very little ensuing music has been able to capture this.
    Besides the energy and musicianship, their use of odd meters in improvised music has never been duplicated.

  2. Please pardon the grammatical errors. It’s not until I see the text outside of the document that I composed that I see them, sticking out like sore thumbs.

  3. So, now I read the post. John, good job of putting the Mahavishnu Orchestra in context. I saw them at Stony Brook in the early 70s, because we loved his fantastic guitar playing, Billy Cobham’s drums, and the whole fantastic sound. The jazz-rock fusion created a lot of music that lots of people don’t like, but give me Bitches Brew any day. Really, any album Mati Klarwein did the cover art for. Even Abraxas.

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